Leadership Lessons from Two Boston Sports Legends

December 2, 2011

A title alone doesn’t make you a leader. Sports teams have coaches, and they are definitely (or should be) in charge. But sports teams have another type of leader that is driven by the recognition of one’s own peers: the title of team captain.

A captain’s job is to lead by example and to lead when the coaches aren’t around. To be effective, captains must have the respect from those they are leading. This goes beyond being genetically gifted with great athletic capabilities. You can be respected for your physical attributes, but leadership requires more.

Two examples of those who weren’t exactly known for being the most physically talented athletes in the world are Tom Brady and Larry Bird. This is not to say that they don’t have certain gifts, but neither of these two Boston sports legends have ever been regarded as being able to fun faster or jump higher than most others in their respective sports. However, they each posses leadership qualities that set them apart.

(Larry Bird is retired, but I’ll refrain from using the past tense to differentiate Larry versus Tom for the purposes of this post.)

At the core of what sets both Tom Brady and Larry Bird apart is their fierce competitive drive, but they channel that drive differently from some other athletes. Sure, they each have an ego and care about their personal statistics and their own level of play, but if the scoreboard doesn’t reflect a win at the end of a game, they aren’t happy.

Tom Brady and Larry Bird rigorously assess their own performance and the performance of the team, with a team-first mindset. They want that team victory first and foremost, and they understand they aren’t doing it alone. In fact, they understand that they can’t do it alone. But as leaders, they understand that it all starts with them.

Both Tom Brady and Larry Bird are known for their tremendous work ethic. They constantly study the game, learning new things and looking for ways to get an edge on their competition. There is a relentless quest for continuous improvement with the both of them. They apply themselves to being the best and they make others around them better as a result.

Larry Bird is known for being a great shooter, and he has made countless buzzer-beating, game-winning shots. Tom Brady has equally engineered some impressive, game-winning touchdown drives. When the pressure is on, Tom Brady and Larry Bird deliver. But they also spread the wealth.

Tom Brady engages everyone in the offense. He spreads the ball around to a variety of receivers, and if he could win a game by handing the ball off to a running back on every play, he would do it. If you as a receiver are executing your job well (running your routes), you’ll get the ball. If you aren’t, you’ll hear from Tom. The same goes for Larry Bird. He is also known as one of the great passers in the game; get yourself into position and you’ll get your shots at the hoop. But like Tom Brady, Larry Bird wants people around him to be playing hard and smart.

Tom Brady and Larry Bird ask a lot of those around them. But they are harder on themselves than anyone else, which makes it palatable to others when they ask more from them. They continually prepare themselves and their teams to execute well when the pressure is on.

It is all of that hard work and continual striving to be better in those average situations that equip themselves and their teams with the confidence to execute when the pressure is on, when the team is behind and they need to come together to win the game. Tom Brady’s and Larry Bird’s confidence emerges when others around them need to see that confidence; and because their leadership has prepared the team for these situations, they are prepared to dig a little deeper and win those tough games.